Today marked the end of what was surely one of the most surprising Parliaments in modern British history. If we were to rewind the clock five years to the start of the short campaign in 2010, you would find few – if any – political watchers willing to agree that there would be a formal coalition government. I suggest you would find absolutely none at all who would be willing to concede it might last a full five years.
Reading back over the commentary of a breathless and rather stunned media, reacting to the initial coalition agreement and that infamous Dave ‘n’ Nick double act in the Downing Street
rose garden, there was immense scepticism even after the deal was struck that it would go even half the distance. From all sides of the political divide, the pessimistic predictions rolled in.
What’s striking, too, is that they carried on coming. Even two years later, with a huge amount of policy already implemented – some of it highly radical and some of it politically damaging (academies, tuition fees, the AV referendum) – the belief that there would be an unnatural end was still widespread. This, despite the fact that the government had also already put in place the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which would act as a monumental barrier to any precipitate uncoupling. Yet in August 2012, less than a fifth of voters believed that the coalition would continue to 2015, according to an ICM poll; even such a celebrated political columnist as Peter Oborne had predicted portentously in March of that year that this “fine” government would not see out 2013.
Yet here we are. March 30th, 2015, and the coalition has completed its work. For my party, the Liberal Democrats, it has been a bruising, painful and largely thankless challenge. Contrary to much lazy opinion, there was little triumphalism as the party collectively took that decision; there was a shared knowledge that it would be tough – perhaps critically so – and that by entering government there was every prospect that the smaller party would lose its identity.
Remarkably, that hasn’t happened. Although the Lib Dems are likely to be severely denuded on May 7th – losing perhaps more than half our seats – the party’s identity remains intact. To me, as someone who resigned his membership in 2012, only to rejoin in 2014, this is highly impressive. What is more, the credit is shared across a wide spectrum of party figures, both inside and outside government. In government there have been important victories for Ministers such as Steve Webb (pensions), Jo Swinson (expanded employment rights such as parental leave), Vince Cable (expansion of apprenticeships and, yes, a tuition fees system that is fairer than the last one), Lynne Featherstone (SSM and FGM), Norman Lamb (mental health), Norman Baker (drugs policy review), and more. Nick Clegg was personally responsible for the constitutional reform agenda – which didn’t go so well – but can also take personal credit for some of the big manifesto-based wins, such as the pupil premium. Danny Alexander can be proud of his involvement in achieving a larger income tax cut for basic rate taxpayers than even the Lib Dems themselves had planned in 2010. Meanwhile, outside government there have been key MPs and members fighting to maintain the party’s independent spirit and identity in the face of constant attacks.
Lib Dems can be proud of what their party has achieved over the past five years. It hasn’t been perfect by any means. But my criteria for being an active member of a political party are threefold:
- I want a party that works in and for the national interest – not primarily its own, or those of a select group rather than society as a whole.
- I want a party that broadly embodies my own views on a diverse range of issues – principally the economy, civil liberties, the environment, and the place of the UK in the world. (That’s by no means all of them.)
- I want a party that is willing to work with others in good faith, even if the process is painful. Because that’s how the best decisions tend to get made.
By all three measures the Lib Dems remain the party for me, and I am more confident of that than I was in 2010. As some more enlightened commentators are belatedly pointing out, they deserve some credit from voters for their troubles. They, and by extension, the government they have been a vital part of, have confounded expectations